The big news last week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Denver was that choreographers were in, the quad was out and sleep was in short supply. Somehow a U.S. Olympic team was chosen out of the proceedings at McNichols Arena. But the fact that it will be the strongest U.S. contingent in years, one with a good chance of winning four medals—two of them gold—was obscured by grumbling over a schedule that ran the competition into the wee hours and by the thin air of the Mile High City.
How ridiculous was the scheduling? Consider that Brian Boitano, a former world champion about to win his fourth national title, probably the finest technical skater in the history of the sport, took the ice for his freestyle program—the only time an American audience would have a chance to see it before the Calgary Games—at 12:36 a.m. on Saturday. Was he confident? Nervous? Excited? "I was sleepy," Boitano said afterward, yawning.
Or that entrants in the senior pairs, who did nothing for the first four days of the competition but practice and watch, had to skate their short programs and freestyle programs within 17 hours of each other; about 5� hours of that time, as much as any of the competitors could manage, were spent in restful slumber (i.e., passed out from exhaustion and/or lack of oxygen). Hey, the idea was to choose an Olympic team.
Oh, well, the judges saw to it that the right skaters—even if some of them weren't at the tippy-top of their game—were selected. And there were some stunning performances, particularly in the singles competitions. But as a general statement, one thing was clear: The U.S. figure skating team hasn't peaked too early this year.
The competition started on a flat note when Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory defended their dance title for the first time without the benefit of a single move requiring a lift. Gregory, who ruptured a disk in his back five weeks ago, skated wearing a brace and sometimes was visibly in pain. Understandably, much of their spark was absent. If Gregory's back doesn't improve in the next month, their chances of a top-five finish at the Olympics are nil.
In the pairs competition, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, who won the bronze medal at the worlds last year, won their third national championship in four years, overcoming a fall and a muffed crossing jump in their freestyle program to beat Todd Waggoner and Gillian Wachsman. "We felt a little tired near the end," the diminutive Watson said, citing the altitude and that they were able to get so little sleep between programs.
Denver's organizing committee had scheduled the events not with the skaters in mind, but rather television and the potential gate. The pairs, always a crowd favorite, were the sacrificial lambs. "That will change in the future," says influential coach Ron Ludington, whose top pair, Wayne and Natalie Seybold, booked themselves a trip to Calgary by finishing third.
The men's competition got off to a spectacular start and then sort of snoozed to a conclusion. Boitano, a San Franciscan who has been working with Toronto choreographer Sandra Bezic since April, earned near-perfect marks for composition and style—eight 6.0's and a single 5.9—in a dramatic short program that was a radical and welcome departure from his days as a self-described "technical robot." Wearing a vest and a billowing high-collared shirt straight out of 18th-century France, Boitano wowed the audience with a crackling, confident interpretation of a scene from Meyerbeer's ballet Les Patineurs (The Skaters). The highlight came when Boitano, skating the role of the arrogant show-off, landed a triple-double combination, then seamlessly wiped his skate blade with his fingers and flicked the snow back over his shoulder. The performance brought the crowd to its feet.
"I would like to skate this exact program in Calgary," he said afterward. The self-effacing Boitano credited Bezic with creating his exciting new on-ice persona. "I had a hard time pretending I was arrogant," he said. "I had to practice it every day."
Boitano also announced that his coach, Linda Leaver, had finally prevailed upon him not to try his quadruple toe loop in his freestyle program, either at the nationals or at the Olympics. "I want it in, she wants it out," Boitano said. Said Leaver, "This performance just reinforces my opinion that he can get 6.0's without the quad."